Sunday, November 7, 2010

A review of/commentary on/thoughts inspired by Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I recently finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. What an excellent book. Basically, the author has bounced back and forth with being a vegetarian most of his adult life. He falls back into an omnivorous diet mostly due to convenience and taste. When he finds out he is going to be a father, it makes him think, "What do I want my child to eat?" So, he dives into research about the meat industry to be totally informed on whether or not he should feed his son meat. The book was not intended to try to convince people to stop eating meat. It's about the facts and letting people make their own decisions based on those facts. The book does make a very sound argument against meat though. If I wasn't already a vegetarian, it very well could make me one.

The majority of the book focuses on the horrors of factory farming. For those who don't know, factory farming has become the dominant method of farming in America. It is spreading throughout the world, including Canada. It has taken the family out of farming and replaced it with corporations. And what are corporations all about? The bottom line. Maximum profitibility. So how factory farming works is this: pack as many animals as you can into the smallest space you can, stifle all their natural instincts, cut them off from sunlight and fresh air, mess with their genetics and pump them full of anti-biotics and hormones to get the most meat on the least food in the shortest amount of time. Sound unnatural? That's because it is. It's also how 99% of the chicken, turkey and pork raised for meat are produced. Laying hens have it worse than meat chickens. Cattle have it "best". Only somewhere around 60% of dairy and beef cattle are produced by factory farms.

Foer discusses how not only does factory farming cause a life of suffering for billions of animals every year, it also harms us at the same time. Methane gas emissions (worse than carbon dioxide) from the feces of factory farmed animals (and farmed animals in general) is a greater contributor to global warming than the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels worldwide. 60% greater if I am not mistaken. Think about that. Eating a steak or hamburger, ham or bacon, chicken or turkey is worse for the environment than driving your car. And that's just air pollution. Water pollution from the farms, feedlots and slaughterhouses is just as devastating. Spills of untreated feces and urine have caused catastophic damage to ecosystems. One spill in particular causes twice as much ecological damage as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And there is virtually no legislation regarding treatment anyway. So most of it ends up in waterways anyway because it costs money to treat it and that cuts into profit.

The heavy use of non-treatment anti-biotics on factory farms has been PROVEN to be the cause of major flu outbreaks. Bird flu and swine flu being the most familiar. What happens is, the "units" (remember, this is a factory. It's all numbers.) are fed food heavily laced with anti-biotics. The system has found that it is cheaper to just pump them all with drugs than to only treat the ones that get sick.  Besides, the conditions and warped genetics have destroyed the animals' immune systems. They can't not get sick. The goal is just keep them alive til slaughter. This overuse of anti-biotics leads to the buildup of anti-biotic resistant strains of viruses. These strains eventually evolve and hybridize with viruses that affect humans and BAM! H1N1. This is not conspiracy theory. This is fact.

I am not going to begin to list all the atrocities that occur on factory farms and in slaughterhouses but I will tell you about a few. Pigs are kept in such close quarters that often they can't even turn around. Their natural instincts are so stifled that they quite literally go insane. Open sores and cannibalism is the norm. Pregant sows are kept in gestation crates. (This practice has been outlawed in some states and a total ban is gaining momentum across North America) Beatings, burning and other sadistic acts are witnessed by auditors. During announced audits. So what happens when no one is looking? Industrial slaughterhouses are so bound by efficiency and profit that (way too) many animals are scalded, dismembered, skinned and/or eviscerated while fully conscious because workers aren't allowed to stop the line if the "knocking" (electric shock/bolt gun) doesn't work the first time. They aren't meant to be killed. Just stunned. The blood drains faster if the heart is still pumping. That's just hogs and cattle.

Some people only eat chicken. No pork, no beef. For whatever reason, that is the only meat they eat. Upon hearing I was a vegetarian, someone asked me, "Not even chicken?" It seems like the least morally damaging choice. It's just a bird, right? The fact is, chickens (and turkeys) have it worst of all. I can personally attest to this. I worked on a factory poultry farm for about 4 months. I wanted out after the first day. The birds are crammed into tiny cages. Each laying hen spends it's life standing on roughly 67 square inches of wire cage. That's a full grown chicken living in a space smaller than a sheet of paper. The only natural light they get is from what comes in the giant exhaust fans that must constantly circulate air. Otherwise the air quickly becomes unbreathable. Where I worked, there was 8 6ft fans in a barn. The air quality was so bad that while I was cleaning them, I could only have one fan turned off at a time and for no longer than 5 minutes. That's how bad the air is. In some cage styles there is nothing separating the tiers of cages. So all the feces from the birds above falls on the lower birds. The cycles of light and dark are manipulated to trick the bird's systems into producing more eggs. The average hen lays 10 times more eggs in a year than a century ago. I worked in the pullet barns. They are the birds that haven't started laying eggs yet. Part of my duties was "culling". I use quotations for that word because I think of it more as maximizing profit than anything else. You would go through the barn and look into all the cages. If I saw a rooster, pull it out and kill it. Lame? Kill it. Leg stuck in the cage so hard you have to break it to free the bird? Kill it. Smaller than the rest? Kill it. Roosters don't lay eggs. Lame birds will never get the chance to heal. And small birds won't be laying by the time they should. So why waste feed on them? It's all about the money. You can pretty much guarantee that any eggs you buy at a grocery store came from birds raised in this way. Oh, and don't forget the debeaking! They have to be debeaked (sometimes twice) so that when they go crazy due to the stress they don't kill each other. This is done without pain relief with implements similar to those used to trim a dog's nails. But they're heated. Broiler birds (raised for meat, not eggs) have it a little better. Mostly the same conditions but they get around 80 square inches of space. Plus, they get killed much earler than laying hens so they don't have to endure it for as long. I witnessed this first hand and I still ate chicken for another 6 years. I still eat eggs but I've never been a huge egg eater. However, since reading the book I was reminded of the way the egg industry works and it's been weighing on my mind. The problem is, not eating eggs is easy, not eating anything with eggs IN it, is hard. If I was to eat an egg at all, I'd rather just eat one outright because I can get that from the guy down the road, the farmer's market, my sister-in-law and I know that those eggs came from birds that lead good lives. But not eating anything with eggs in it (or at least not from locally sourced eggs) would require a drastic change in my eating habits. I am willing to make that change but as Foer points out....

Eating is more than just fueling our bodies. Eating is a social activity. Rarely do we eat alone. Eating is what we do with other people. It's a main point of interacting with family, friends etc. So the dilemna arises with the issue of social responsibility. Where do you draw the line between offending yourself and offending your host? Vegetarianism is becoming more commonplace in general but not where I come from. Aside from my Buddism teachers, the list of vegetarians I know is a short one. I've been lucky enough that I haven't met with hostile resistance to my choice of a meatless diet. Most of the reaction I get is, "Why?" dripping with shock and awe. Some of my more openminded friends/family are more understanding and I even get a few "Good for you!" comments (I'll get to that in a minute) What I am faced with already, and what would get even more complicated should I decide to go vegan, is, I can only makes choices for myself. I can't expect everyone to eat differently just because I choose to. I can't expect my family and friends to make a separate meal just for me. I also can't be expected to make a separate meal for myself every day either. Or can I? Every meal is like mental acrobatics. My mind swaying back and forth between what my heart says is right and what my mind says is convenient and politic and my stomach says is tasty. It's most definitely an issue I need to spend more time on.

Getting back to the "Good for you!" thing. It occurs to me that most people know, at least on some level that eating meat isn't the best choice you can make. Foer (inspired by Kafka) talks about conscious forgetting. Many of us know what it takes to put meat on a plate. We know that it was once a living breathing animal. We know it was killed and "processed" and packaged all nice for us to buy in the grocery store. But we choose to forget all that suffering and death because it tastes good. If you had to kill, skin, and dismember your dinner yourself would you do it? (Many people would I know but far from the majority) Would you be able to do it if you raised that animal? I don't believe your average consumer would. But the average consumer doesn't have to. Factory farming and its unfathomable pain and suffering has allowed the average consumer to eat an ever increasing quantity of cheap meat and not have to think about the details. It's the consumer demand for cheap meat that drives factory farming. You think meat isn't cheap? Just imagine what meat would cost if prices followed anywhere near inflation rates. So our tongues (the organ of our crudest of senses) and our pocketbooks have led us (the universal us. Not me!) to forget what we don't want to think about. To ignore so much for so little. Also, it seems that on a more basal level, the Good For You people know that eating meat is not good for you. On a purely health related basis. Yet those people are not able to overcome the habit, social pressure and/or tastiness enough to actually make a change.

Foer also touches on advocacy. He talks about the fact that while making the choice to eschew the consumption of meat is a very personal choice, staying silent about it is no way to effect change. It sounds cliche to say that one person can make a difference but you can't get the ball rolling if you don't push it. If I can make people think twice about how they eat, great. If I can convince one person to take the leap into vegetarianism, even better. My wife has been more than accomodating with our family meals (more so than I) and is almost a vegetarian herself. At least at home. I know she eats meat when she gets take out. By proxy, our children are close to vegetarians too. I can only hope that once they are old enough to understand why I am a vegetarian, that they will choose to be vegetarian too. To be part of a full vegetarian family would be aces!

Although Foer's book deals primarily with factory farming and its impact on animal welfare and the evironment, there are many other reasons for being vegetarian that he acknowledges but fall outside the scope of Eating Animals. Such reasons (plus some I've read elsewhere) include; a low conversion ratio of plant protein to animal protein makes for a very inefficient use of crops; a growing demand for meat worldwide means more land in developing nations is used for livestock that those nations can't afford to eat; which in turn, makes less land available for the growing of the crops they can afford; which in turn, drives up the prices of those crops; if all the land used specifically to grow food for livestock was used to grow food for human consumption, global hunger would be a non-issue. Instead, millions starve so a priveledged few (relatively speaking) can eat meat; even after a million plus years of human consumption of meat our bodies have not evolved to properly digest it (which makes me think we aren't meant to) so it putrifies as it passes through our digestive tract which may be the cause of; an increased risk of developing colon cancer in meat eaters vs vegetarians along with an increased risk of heart disease; as fresh water availibility decreases globally, more and more livestock are drinking what water we have left; factory fish farming is very environmentally damaging; commercial fishing methods (long lines, trawling and skein nets for tuna, shrimp etc) are incredibly inefficient and devastate marine life. Over 145 species of marine life are hauled on to the decks (almost all dead) and tossed over the side because they aren't what was being fished for. As little as 10% of what is caught in nets and on long lines is actually what was intended; and finally (and this one is all me. sort of) the karmic consequences of indirectly causing the deaths of inmumerable animals over the course of your lifetime are pretty heavy.

Anyway, it's an excellent book and I highly recommend it. As I read the results of Foer's extensive research and interview and testimonials from industry workers, advocates and activists, I was filled with emotion. Sadness, compassion, anger, outrage, loneliness, helplessness and a glimmer of hope. I hope that by discussing it here I have at least made you think. Thinking is the first step towards doing. If you would like to discuss the book or vegetarianism with me in more depth, I can be contacted at  The book is available at major retailers but if you'd rather spend your money on vegetables I may be able to lend you my copy.

1 comment:

m.e.d. said...

Wow Matt.

What a passionate and well written article; you have obviously done your research and care a great deal about the choice you've made. It is inspiring to see a friend stand up for his beleifs -- I completely agree that one man can make a difference. You have and you will.